I struggle to have patience with the latest round of gun control debates. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, I find myself grasping for something that the promise to legislate away assault rifles simply cannot provide. Asam Ahmad lit the way for me when he wrote on Facebook that queer community, especially QTPOC community, is, in fact, a scarce and fragile thing. I’m beginning to piece it together, between the thoughts and writing of many friends, and it’s helping me crystallize my anger. A kind of anger that burns ice cold inside my bones, that feels treacherous to navigate alone. And so I’m writing this thing.
It started for me when people started saying that gun control is now a “gay issue.” I’m unmoved by the narrative that, now that “the gays” are incensed about how easily Omar Mateen acquired the weapon he used to slaughter 49 people—mostly queer, predominantly Latinx—in a club in Orlando, we’ll see some progress on the issue in the United States. After all, the argument goes, these are organizations that, in my brief lifetime, helped transform the nation that mourned in shame at the murder of Matthew Shepard into one where gay and lesbian citizens can get married and openly serve in the military. These queens, as they say, get things done.
After Shepard’s murder, an upswell of political will passed strict and punitive hate crimes legislation at the state and national levels to demonstrate the United States’ seriousness about protecting gay and lesbian citizens. At the same time, the late 90s and early 2000s saw a range of pop cultural phenomena, thrusting a largely white queerness into mainstream awareness. Films, television shows, and celebrities “coming out” brought gay and lesbian lives into American living rooms.
The gays and lesbians of this pop cultural moment were overwhelmingly white, cisgender, middle- to upper-class, able-bodied and not sick, with narrative arcs pointing up how these gay Americans were just like other Americans. Such homonormativity became a common refrain in favor of gay marriage: gay couples wanted the legal and financial benefits of marriage, just like straight couples. And the case against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was predicated on the argument that gay and lesbian citizens were just as capable of carrying out the armed work of empire as their straight counterparts. Good citizens, deserving of rights, were looking for a monogamous, lifelong partnership enshrined in American economic and civic life as consumers and families. This effective mainstreaming of gay and lesbian identities in the 2000s fully incorporated TV-friendly gays and lesbians as citizens in the American body politic, with all its attendant privileges.
What gets far less attention is the fact the majority of queers aren’t homonormative citizens. The real effect of hate crimes legislation in practice is to create harsher sentencing options for individuals convicted of those crimes, for greater discretion on the part of people—judges and prosecutors, for instance—inside of the justice system. While those harsher sentences don’t prevent violence, they also disproportionately impact the communities from which the incarcerated are removed. The communities left to bear this burden, of course, include queers. In particular, queers of color—queers who, more than likely, don’t fit into the homonormative rubric of citizenship.
So it’s what hasn’t been done that strikes me the most deeply after Orlando. That so many of those killed and wounded in the attack were queer and trans people of color. Who may not have been out to their families, and were outed in death or mortal pain. Who may have been undocumented, and whose families cannot come and mourn with the family, by choice and by birth, of the others killed. Who may have been poor or working class, lacking access to adequate, compassionate, competent healthcare and stable housing, especially as transgender or HIV+ people. Who may have been grappling with abusive relationships and precarious work. Whose struggles we may never know.
The same organizations who won gay marriage and repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell have not and do not come through for queers like these. Hearing the names of the dead in the mouths of the leaders of these organizations stops me in my tracks. Because the narrative that the gays get things done rings false for anyone who, like me, has felt alienated at a cis masculine gay party. Alone in organizing meetings dominated by white queers. Isolated and furious at marches and rallies and vigils praising the police.
Yet this narrative plays nicely with a certain kind of homonationalism. Homonormative citizens, as a precondition of and a reward for their good citizenship, has been disciplined into the American way of life, easy to control and order. And in exchange for submitting to that control and complying with that orderliness, the state agrees it will keep them “safe” by incarcerating the criminal and vaporizing violent threats to the nation.
Homonationalism is fueled by gay pride parades sponsored by Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Wells Fargo, amongst others. It’s written large across the cases of criminalizing HIV+ people, some of whom have been incarcerated or threatened with deportation after exposing—or potentially exposing—partners. Homonationalism makes the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell less a call for justice than for a pinkwashing diversity that allows power to congratulate itself on its progressive policies without interrogating the violence that lurks beneath the surface.
And violence lurks beneath the surface of every aspect of American life. The land we live on was stolen from Native American tribes at gunpoint. The foundations of American wealth were built on the backs of Black chattel slaves in the first half of this country’s existence. Subsequent waves of racist economic exploitation has shored up that foundational violence. Today, our continued prosperity seems, more and more, to be intimately tied to waging perpetual war both at home and abroad against an unseen and unknowable foe. The living legacy of this violence doesn’t simply haunt, it coexists with us every day.
There are, as far as I can see, three ways of coming to grips with that haunting. The first is to tackle it head-on. As many, far more skilled writers have argued before me, we have an ignoble history of refusing that challenge. The other two play out in an intricate dance between two common, and seemingly opposed, strains of response to Orlando. And both have to do with the securitization of American life: our craving to control and order in the face of anxiety, precarity, terror, and the unknown.
Gun control is one impulse. Gun control is fundamentally about securitization—restricting who can and cannot own a weapon, with the underlying logic that our neighbors are greater risks to our lives and livelihoods than the police or the army. There’s evidence that this logic works, too, in the no-fly, no-buy legislation being proposed by Congress. The No-Fly List is an attack on civil liberties, but also a potential tool to marginalize perceived enemies of the state.
In the wake of Orlando, the subtext is that the good queer citizen, properly participating in American life as part of the body politic, ought to fear these enemies, who threaten to rupture the veneer of prosperity. It’s a fear that relies on the suppression of deviance from good citizenship: gun control in the United States has roots in efforts to disarm Black liberation organizations, like the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army.
If there is a lesson we can learn from the defanging of the movements of the 60s and 70s, it’s that we have plenty to fear from the police and the army. Interestingly, the second impulse illuminates that. A new story that broke last week about Omar Mateen is that the FBI tried to entrap him using informants. As has been reported elsewhere, the FBI has gone to great lengths to get individuals, chosen through racist profiling, to incriminate themselves by partaking in plans hatched by FBI informants.
This is “if you see something, say something” taken to its logical extreme. In the civilian directive, travelers are asked to report “suspicious packages” or people acting unusually. What constitutes “suspicious” or “unusual” people or behavior is left to the viewer to decide, a perception based in deviance from the way a stable, normative citizen goes about their business. As part of the Obama administration’s interagency plan called “Countering Violent Extremism,” Muslims are further instructed to rat on people in their community they suspect of wrongdoing—often people who are precarious or isolated. When the FBI entraps these individuals, they are really rooting out “vulnerable” members of a community—people who need belonging or a financial windfall who are feeling desperate. People who are already failing as model citizens.
CVE makes securitization a self-fulfilling prophecy: suddenly we do have more to fear from our neighbors than the state. My Muslim neighbor is a terrorist waiting to happen—especially if he’s feeling isolated, precarious, and threatened; if he’s already inclined to violent, controlling behavior. CVE then can justify itself as a method by finding individuals who fit the profile and pushing them to self-incriminate. So why wouldn’t we want strict and punishing gun control?
To be clear, I don’t think that FBI entrapment caused Mateen to go on a killing spree. Yet I cannot fathom the hurt and betrayal that results from being the target of this scheme. I can’t help but feel ice-cold rage at the spiraling risk that Mateen’s case illuminates: by forcing Muslim communities to submit to the security state, we make enemies, fail to make our people safer, and endanger bystanders.
A terror that Mateen may have actually lived, as Muna Mire so lucidly points out, was the terror of an unforgiving culture. Our popular narratives of queerness, and the state’s demand in order for queer people to be granted full citizenship, is to be out and proud. Yet the left hand does not know what the right is doing: there is no soft landing, no safety net, for those of us who have internalized negativity around our queerness and have no one to fall back on. With the added specter of HIV, queers who find they have little social support and face economic precarity often can’t be out and proud.
The combination of Mateen’s isolation and his entitlement to others’ bodies and safety may have paved the road to where we are today. We know he abused his ex-wife. We know he stalked a former coworker. We know he had been seen at the very club his shooting spree took place, drinking too much and grappling with his demons. Titillating reports have surfaced that Mateen acted on some of his queer desires—ironically outing him in death. Regardless of what gets headlines, the deeply conflicted heart of Omar Mateen will remain a mystery.
We also can look at Mateen’s history of violence in the context of how men like him have posed risks to social movements historically. In her account of how Brandon Darby infiltrated and instigated eight members of a Texas activist community, Courtney Desiree Morris lays out how the unchallenged rage and misogyny endemic in groups have been the cracks in their foundations that ultimately led to their demise. It was Darby’s, like Mateen’s, misogyny, that made him an appealing tool for the state.
Given what we know, being sold out may have been like putting a flame to a gas can inside a grain silo. A violent, controlling man who took out his anxieties and pain by harming others was, for the FBI, the perfect candidate for terror. Even though Mateen was, by many accounts, not even a devout Muslim, it was his social isolation, precarity, and the fact he tended to turn his suffering outward that made him a target. Perhaps it was this manifestation of his very queerness that landed him on the FBI’s radar in the first place.
When I think about how young men like Omar Mateen are targeted by the FBI, I find a bitter irony that before and against the rise of homonationalist interpellation into the security state, queerness can often be characterized by the non-normative families we form in order to survive. This fragile, tenuous community that persists in spite of the harm we cause one another and the harm caused by securitization is under mortal threat now. It is always under threat, I suppose, by the violence of American culture and the violence of the American state.
If this critique is a call to action, it is this radical plea: I call on all of us, not just queers, to grasp at the root of violence in American culture. We must reckon with the violent past, which is always imminent. We must dismantle the structures that are the contemporary stewards of that violence. We must reckon with the violence within each of us, with the ways we harm ourselves and one another. And as we do so, I hope my fellow queer people of color, in particular, can embrace queer family, to come back to a home that perhaps we never had, but certainly that we have lost. Whether that home is at a kitchen table, in the streets, or on a dance floor, I hope that we can build true safety together.
True safety comes not from implicitly giving the state permission to further police and punish our communities, to decide who is and is not a good queer citizen and therefore worthy of safety and life, but from having each other’s backs. When the state is preoccupied with identifying who is in and who is out, those of us who sit at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities are, more likely than not, going to be out.
The kind of safety I’m talking about requires active participation. It is not a state of being, certainly not one that we can achieve through perfecting our security apparatus or driving us to be more suspicious of one another. No assault weapons ban can give us this kind of safety. Instead, it’s a safety that is built piece by tiny piece, building thick networks of deep love that encompass but far surpass the romantic. Above and beyond the nuclear family structure prescribed by the state, I demand a safety rooted in the choice to be in families that sprawl and embrace. Families that are queer.
Queer family is deeper and more complete than merely saying that #LoveWins, because we must understand queerness not just to be “homosexuality” or who we sleep with. Rather, I want to understand queerness as much more. Michelle R. Murtin-Baron paraphrases Jasbir Puar, who defines queerness as “inhabiting identities or carrying out behaviors that resist rather than align with and uphold the neoliberal state.”
Which means queer family is the tenuous but urgent vision of a different life. It is the fragile hope that we are not doomed to be merely the products of the violent past, but that we can transform ourselves as we build the future. Together.